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The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time

For the first time in 17 years, we’ve completely remade our list of the best songs ever. More than 250 artists, writers, and industry figures helped us choose a brand-new list full of historic favourites, world-changing anthems, and new classics

Photo Illustration by Sean McCabe. Photographs used within illustration by Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images, 3; Paul Natkin/WireImage; Val Wilmer/Redferns/Getty Images; Theo Wargo/Getty Images; Jack Mitchell/Getty Images; C Flanigan/Getty Images; Scott Dudelson/Getty Images; Gie Knaeps/Getty Images; Emma McIntyre/Getty Images; Steven Nunez; STILLZ

In 2004, Rolling Stone published its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It’s one of the most widely read stories in our history, viewed hundreds of millions of times on this site. But a lot has changed since 2004; back then the iPod was relatively new, and Billie Eilish was three years old. So we’ve decided to give the list a total reboot. To create the new version of the RS 500 we convened a poll of more than 250 artists, musicians, and producers — from Angelique Kidjo to Zedd, Sam Smith to Megan Thee Stallion, M. Ward to Bill Ward — as well as figures from the music industry and leading critics and journalists. They each sent in a ranked list of their top 50 songs, and we tabulated the results.

How We Made the List and Who Voted

Nearly 4,000 songs received votes. Where the 2004 version of the list was dominated by early rock and soul, the new edition contains more hip-hop, modern country, indie rock, Latin pop, reggae, and R&B. More than half the songs here — 254 in all — weren’t present on the old list, including a third of the Top 100. The result is a more expansive, inclusive vision of pop, music that keeps rewriting its history with every beat.

From Rolling Stone US


Nirvana, ‘Come as You Are’

“It’s just about people and what they’re expected to act like,” Kurt Cobain said. “The lines in the song are really contradictory. They’re kind of a rebuttal to each other.” The song is driven by a simple riff that Butch Vig goosed with a flanged, subaquatic guitar effect. Cobain apparently lifted it from a 1984 song by U.K. art-metal band Killing Joke, who Dave Grohl paid back 12 years later by drumming on their 2003 album. In the wake of Cobain’s suicide, though, the most haunting lyric would become, “And I swear that I don’t have a gun.”


Luther Vandross, ‘Never Too Much’

The Eighties’ major male R&B balladeer’s solo debut was financed in part from money he made singing jingles for KFC and 7UP. Vandross had been pushed to do his own thing by Roberta Flack, for whom he’d sung background. Said Vandross: “She said, ‘Luther, you’re too comfortable sitting on that stool singing “ooh and aaah.”‘ Roberta was single-handedly responsible for me starting my own career.” What pushed her was hearing the demo of “Never Too Much” — one of the most buoyant love songs of the Eighties, with Vandross’ high notes as delicate as soap bubbles.


Daft Punk feat. Pharrell Williams, ‘Get Lucky’

When Pharrell Williams volunteered to appear on Daft Punk’s fourth album, he told them he’d been thinking about Chic legend Nile Rodgers musically; fortuitously, the French dance producers could play him a track they had on hand that they’d made with Rodgers himself. The result was “Get Lucky,” which, as the lead single from their disco-flavored album Random Access Memories, rose like a phoenix to become the song that defined its year. “I think the robots are leading,” Williams told Rolling Stone. “Daft Punk, they’re definitely leading.”


Joni Mitchell, ‘Help Me’

Mitchell’s 1974 album, Court and Spark, her biggest-selling ever, was also the one that she held the tightest amount of musical control over to date. “I guided everything into place on Court and Spark — even though I didn’t play it, I sang it, and then they played it from that, and it was pretty much as writ,” she said. (Her next album, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, was looser and more jazz-oriented.) “Help Me,” recorded with the jazz group Tom Scott’s L.A. Express, features one of Mitchell’s sultriest vocals and most brocaded arrangements, inspiring Prince, 13 years later, to pay the song lyrical tribute in his “Ballad of Dorothy Parker.”


John Lee Hooker, ‘Boom Boom’

Hooker, whose canny blues boogie became a root integer for early rock & roll, said this swinging, swaggering bit of primal thump was inspired by his inability to get to a regular gig on time. “There was a young lady named Luilla,” Hooker said. “She was a bartender [at the Apex Bar in Detroit]. I’d always be late, and whenever I’d come in she’d point at me and say, ‘Boom Boom, you’re late again.’ One night she said, ‘Boom boom, I’m gonna shoot you down.’ She gave me a song, but she didn’t know it.” Keith Richards said of Hooker, “Even Muddy Waters was sophisticated next to him.” That was a compliment.


Van Morrison, ‘Into the Mystic’

Delectably arranged, transportingly sung, this may be the definitive Morrison song — an evocation of “the days of old” that feels like a lover’s whisper. The highlight of 1970’s classic Moondance, “Into the Mystic” benefited from a new, more organic way of recording for him: “It was more like working with an actual band rather than a bunch of session guys,” Morrison said. As for the lyrics, he’d admit, “So many of my songs from that Seventies period, I haven’t a clue what they’re about. A lot of the time, I was just picking up on a vibe.”


Roy Orbison, ‘Crying’

Orbison said he wrote this lush, dreamy ballad after an encounter with an old flame: “Whether I was physically crying or just crying inside is the same thing.” His near-operatic performance culminated in a high, wailing note, which Orbison never lost the capacity to hit before his death, in 1988. “He sounded like he was singing from an Olympian mountaintop and he meant business,” Bob Dylan wrote in Chronicles. “He was now singing his compositions in three or four octaves that made you want to drive your car over a cliff. He sang like a professional criminal.”


Steel Pulse, ‘Ku Klux Klan’

The first great British reggae band — and some of the style’s finest songwriters — made their Island Records debut with this incendiary look at the rising tide of racist violence in late-Seventies Britain: “The Ku Klux Klan/Here to stamp out Black man.” They underlined the lyric by actually performing the song live — including a memorable BBC appearance — wearing white Klan headgear. “The hoods seemed extreme at the time, but that’s what we are in a way,” vocalist Michael Riley said. “When we wore them, people started questioning what the song was about instead of just dancing to it.”


Sade, ‘No Ordinary Love’

Helen Adu’s small but fully inhabited range has been her secret weapon from the beginning. “I decided that if I was gonna sing, I would sing how I speak, because it’s important to be yourself,” she said. Her voice cracks before she reaches the first chorus of this 1992 hit, playing up the romantic drama of the lyric. Even better, so does Stuart Matthewman’s guitar; in the middle of this otherwise mellow groove, he overdubs a seriously moody and low-key noisy part that gives the whole thing a welcome edge. Sade — it’s not just the singer’s name, it’s also a band.


Beck, ‘Loser’

In 1992, 22-year-old Beck Hansen was scraping by as a video-store clerk while performing bizarro folk songs at L.A. coffeehouses. After friends offered to record some songs, Beck cut “Loser” in his producer’s kitchen. It became the centerpiece of the album Mellow Gold. At first people took “Loser” to be a mere novelty hit, but Beck knew better. “You’d have to be a total idiot to say, ‘I’m the slacker-generation guy. This is my generation.… we’re not gonna fuckin’ show up,’” he said. “I’d be laughed out of the room in an instant.”


Bon Jovi, ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’

Like his New Jersey model Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi concentrates on working-class heroes and heroines. “Livin’ on a Prayer,” co-written with guitarist Richie Sambora, pumped the everyday struggles of Tommy and Gina full of grandeur — guitar-pick slides, dramatic pauses, the inevitable key change — and continues to resonate today. “It’s great that we wrote songs so long ago that people can still relate to,” Bon Jovi said in 2005. “When I hear ‘Livin’ on a Prayer,’ I think to myself, ‘We wrote that. That song has really made its mark. I guess that works.’”


Lana Del Rey, ‘Summertime Sadness’

For her second album, Del Rey went for a sound even more lush than on her debut, and the relentless strings of “Summertime Sadness” recall the soundtracks Angelo Badalamenti composed for David Lynch’s films. She wrote the song in Santa Monica. “I would sit under the telephone wires and listen to them sizzle in the warm air,” she recalled. “I felt happy in the warm weather, and started writing about how sad and gorgeous the summertime felt to me.” A year after its first release, Cedric Gervais’ dance remix turned the song into a Top 10 hit.


Jefferson Airplane, ‘White Rabbit’

The song that brought acid rock to Middle America was a heady rock bolero written by vocalist Slick, reportedly after taking LSD and listening to Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain. She first recorded it with her earlier band, the Great Society, before rebooting it with the Airplane. “Our parents read us stories like Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and The Wizard of Oz,” Slick said. “They all have a place where children get drugs, and are able to fly or see an Emerald City or experience extraordinary animals and people.… And our parents are suddenly saying, ‘Why are you taking drugs?’ Well, hello!”


Sister Nancy, ‘Bam Bam’

Nancy (a.k.a. Ophlin Russell) was the DJ (mic controller) for Kingston’s Stereophonic sound system when she met reggae producer Winston Riley in the late Seventies. “I really admired how he took recording serious,” Nancy said. “You couldn’t go into his studio and do any foolishness.” Their peak, “Bam Bam,” is one of the great early dancehall anthems, booming but bright, tough but playful — and it’s been sampled extensively by everyone from Lauryn Hill to Kanye West.


Missy Elliot, ‘The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)’

As producers, Elliott and Timbaland had already made their rhythmic impact on hip-hop and R&B before Missy’s first single. And some high-profile features had even introduced Elliott’s bobbing, whizzing rap style to audiences. But still, no one could have predicted “The Rain,” with its ghostly sample of Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” memorable Beenie Man misquote (“Who got the keys to the jeep?”), and twitchy yet sleek beat. It made Elliott a star, and she and Tim the producers to beat.


Toto, ‘Africa’

“It’s funny,” Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro said in 1985. “We thought ‘Africa’ was bold, and it did pretty good, but lyrically it didn’t make a dime of sense.” No matter — that instantly calming synthesizer riff, played on a Yamaha GS-1 “dialed in [to] those kalimba, marimba kind of sounds,” as Porcaro described it, does most of the talking, along with that soaring chorus. It hit Number One and has lived on as a yacht-rock touchstone; in 2019, Weezer’s affectionate cover made it ubiquitous all over again — a favor Toto returned by covering Weezer’s “Hash Pipe.”


Migos feat. Lil Uzi Vert, ‘Bad and Boujee’

If cellphones gave rise to ringtone rap, social media gave us meme rap. The Atlanta trio Migos’ opus “Bad and Boujee” has become the latter’s keynote anthem, its “Raindrop, drop-top” hook inspiring scores of Twitter memes and Vine clips, and even showing up at the 2017 Women’s March on Washington, D.C. The trio’s Offset wrote the song’s hook, he told Rolling Stone, while “I had some little situations going on with life, family stuff going down, so I went downstairs to record. Sometimes that’s the best time to get music off — you might be mad, make some crazy shit.”